A Simple Essay

Like many developers, I sometimes over-complicate my code, whether in an attempt to generalize and future-proof it or to just test out some new technique. In theory I know that over-complication is bad, but trying to do this in practice raises questions that I don't know how to answer. So, following a time-honored blogging tradition, I'm going to provide quotes from better known, more insightful people who address the topic, and I'll intersperse a few thoughts of my own so that I can act like I'm adding something to the discussion. (Each of the linked articles and papers is recommended reading for more treatment of this topic.)

“Controlling complexity is the essence of computer programming.” - Brian W. Kernighan (source unknown)
“Complexity is the business we are in, and complexity is what limits us.” - Frederick P. Brooks, The Mythical Man-Month, chapter 17

The main reason for pursuing simplicity is our own limitations:

“Programming is a desperate losing battle against the unconquerable complexity of code, and the treachery of requirements… A lesson I have learned the hard way is that we aren’t smart enough… The human mind can not grasp the complexity of a moderately sized program, much less the monster systems we build today. This is a bitter pill to swallow, because programming attracts and rewards the intelligent, and its culture encourages intellectual arrogance. I find it immensely helpful to work on the assumption that I am too stupid to get things right. This leads me to conservatively use what has already been shown to work, to cautiously test out new ideas before committing to them, and above all to prize simplicity.” - Jonathan Edwards, “Beautiful Code”

Edsger Dijkstra made a similar point over thirty-five years ago:

"The competent programmer is fully aware of the strictly limited size of his own skull; therefore he approaches the programming task in full humility, and among other things he avoids clever tricks like the plague." - Edsger W. Dijkstra, "The Humble Programmer"

Part of Djikstra's remedy, as I understand it, was to push for radical simplicity in programming languages, on the belief we must be able to easily and entirely understand “our basic tools.” The trend has instead been to push more and more complexity into our tools in hopes that it will make our applications manageably simple: languages continue to sprout new features, optimizing compilers rearrange our functions and variables behind our backs, garbage collection makes resource reclamation non-deterministic, and environments like the JVM and CLI become massive projects in their own right.

Accommodating human frailty is the philosophical reason for simplicity, but there are practical benefits as well:

“Everyone knows that debugging is twice as hard as writing a program in the first place. So if you're as clever as you can be when you write it, how will you ever debug it?” - Brian W. Kernighan and P. J. Plauger, The Elements of Programming Style, p. 10.

(A well-known quote, but have debugging advancements like IDE integration, VM playback, and omniscient debugging and techniques like TDD changed this?)

One reason for [Extreme Programming's encouragement of simplicity] is economic. If I have to do any work that's only used for a feature that's needed tomorrow, that means I lose effort from features that need to be done for this iteration… This economic disincentive is compounded by the chance that we may not get it right. However certain we may be about how this function works, we can still get it wrong - especially since we don't have detailed requirements yet. Working on the wrong solution early is even more wasteful than working on the right solution early. And the XPerts generally believe that we are much more likely to be wrong than right (and I agree with that sentiment.) The second reason for simple design is that a complex design is more difficult to understand than a simple design. Therefore any modification of the system is made harder by added complexity. This adds a cost during the period between when the more complicated design was added and when it was needed.” - Martin Fowler, “Is Design Dead?”

Although simplicity has many benefits, complexity is often unavoidable:

“The complexity of software is an essential property, not an accidental one. Hence descriptions of a software entity that abstract away its complexity often abstract away its essence. Mathematics and the physical sciences made great strides for three centuries by constructing simplified models of complex phenomena, deriving properties from the models, and verifying those properties experimentally. This worked because the complexities ignored in the models were not the essential properties of the phenomena. It does not work when the complexities are the essence.” - Frederick P. Brooks, “No Silver Bullet: Essence and Accident in Software Engineering” (as printed in The Mythical Man-Month)

Brooks gives other reasons for complexity being an essential property of software: communication, the number of possible states, and interdependencies all scale nonlinearly, and unlike other human constructs, no two parts of a program are identical.

“I find languages that support just one programming paradigm constraining. They buy their simplicity (whether real or imagined) by putting programmers into an intellectual straitjacket or by pushing complexity from the language into the applications.” - Bjarne Stroustrup, “The Real Stroustrup Interview”

This is one of the few “pro-complexity” quotes I've been able to find. Stroustrup is arguably biased, considering the complexity of his most famous creation, but his point is valid: some complexity is unavoidable and sometimes the best you can do is to push it to the language or the libraries so that the applications can (hopefully) avoid dealing with it. This is why I think that, e.g., the Boost libraries are a good thing, despite or because of their complexity.

Complexity is a major risk to software projects.

“What is the most common mistake on C++ and OO projects? Unnecessary complexity – the plague of OO technology. Complexity, like risk, is a fact of life that can't be avoided. Some software systems have to be complex because the business processes they represent are complex. But unfortunately many intermediate developers try to “make things better” by adding generalization and flexibility that no one has asked for or will ever need. The customer wants a cup of tea, and the developers build a system that can boil the ocean [thanks to John Vlissides for this quip].” - Marshall Cline et al., C++ FAQs, Second Edition, p. 36
“What's the Software Peter Principle”? The Software Peter Principle is in operation when unwise developers “improve” and “generalize” the software until they themselves can no longer understand it, then the project slowly dies.” - Marshall Cline et al., C++ FAQs, Second Edition, p. 37

The term “Software Peter Principle” was coined in C++ FAQs, but it's at least spread enough to get its own Wikipedia page with some added discussion. “Avoid Death by Complexity,” by Alan Keefer, covers the same subject matter and is too long to quote here; just go read it.

Development methodologies can help in the pursuit of simplicity:

I suggest: Exploiting the mass market to avoid constructing what can be bought. Using rapid prototyping as part of a planned iteration in establishing software requirements. Growing software organically, adding more and more function to systems as they are run, used, and tested. Identifying and developing the great conceptual designers of the rising generation. - Frederick P. Brooks, “No Silver Bullet”

Popular perception often views “No Silver Bullet” and The Mythical Man-Month as pessimistic, but Brooks argued that the essential complexity could be steadily reduced; his approach of rapid prototyping and iterative organic growth anticipates some the agile development techniques.

“Do the simplest thing that could possibly work.” “You Aren't Gonna Need It.” - Extreme Programming maxims.

Keep in mind, though, that XP practices reinforce each other; YAGNI and “do the simplest thing” won't work unless you're also practicing unit tests (to find out if your simplest thing actually does work, and to permit refactoring) and refactoring (to keep your design clean as your “simplest” and “not needed” code necessarily grows).

As I try to figure out the balance between simplicity and complexity, I was encouraged to read that someone as experienced as Martin Fowler seems to struggle with some of the same questions:

“So we want our code to be as simple as possible. That doesn't sound like that's too hard to argue for, after all who wants to be complicated? But of course this begs the question "what is simple?" … [One major criteria for XP is] clarity of code. XP places a high value on code that is easily read. In XP "clever code" is a term of abuse. But some people's intention revealing code is another's cleverness… In his XP 2000 paper, Josh Kerievsky points out a good example of this. He looks at possibly the most public XP code of all - JUnit. JUnit uses decorators to add optional functionality to test cases, such things as concurrency synchronization and batch set up code. By separating out this code into decorators it allows the general code to be clearer than it otherwise would be. But you have to ask yourself if the resulting code is really simple… So might we conclude that JUnit's design is simpler for experienced designers but more complicated for less experienced people?…Simplicity is still a complicated thing to find. Recently I was involved in doing something that may well be over-designed. It got refactored and some of the flexibility was removed. But as one of the developers said "it's easier to refactor over-design than it is to refactor no design." It's best to be a little simpler than you need to be, but it isn't a disaster to be a little more complex. The best advice I heard on all this came from Uncle Bob (Robert Martin). His advice was not to get too hung up about what the simplest design is. After all you can, should, and will refactor it later. In the end the willingness to refactor is much more important than knowing what the simplest thing is right away.” - Martin Fowler, “Is Design Dead?”

Of course, this struggle between simplicity and complexity is hardly new with or specific to programming.

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free…” - Joseph Brackett Jr., “Simple Gifts,” 1848